What’s a Jalna? I wondered, feeling quite stupid later when I discovered that it was the the first of a series of sixteen novels that managed to sell over 11 million copies worldwide.
The books were written by someone named Mazo de la Roche. Ah, that rang a bell!
Of course! That was the strange foreign-looking name I used to see on magazine covers all the time back when I dealt more heavily in old magazines. Beyond that point of reference I reverted to my old stupefied saying of youth, back when I first heard of a previously unknown personality: Never hoid of him.
Well him was a her. A prolific and mysterious her of Canadian origin though seemingly better known in foreign lands even during her own lifetime.Born January 15, 1879 in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, only child Mazo de la Roche was often on the move with her parents while growing up. The lonely girl invented stories to amuse herself and supposedly found inspiration for what would be her most memorable and successful work when one of the Roche family stops brought them to the home of a wealthy man who farmed as a hobby.
Her first story was published by Munsey’s in 1902 but she didn’t begin a serious writing career until after her father’s death. Her first novel was Possession (1923), her second Delight (1926), but it was her third that would make her fortune and legacy.
She submitted Jalna to the Atlantic Monthly where it won their $10,000 Award along with serialized publication beginning in the June 1927 issue. The title was the name of the Whiteoak family estate which was itself named after a city in India where the family patriarch had served in the British army.The Captain was long dead by the time de la Roche’s story began, but his wife, Adeline, still lorded over Jalna at age 99 at the open of the first of the stories.
Adeline, who according her the respect any 99-year-old deserves I shall now refer to as Gran, was responsible for starting my Jalna kick. It was while digging up info about character actress Jessie Ralph, who I knew best as the old lady always so nice to Freddie Bartholomew as Peggotty in David Copperfield (1935) and the apple woman in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), that I ran into this strange word Jalna enough times to realize it was not a misprint.
The then 70-year-old Ralph was earning rave reviews for playing Gran in the 1935 RKO release of the strange name. Directed by John Cromwell and starring his wife at that time, Kay Johnson (together the parents of actor James Cromwell), Jalna boasted an interesting cast that lacked big names but ran quite deep.
Ralph’s Gran headed the screen family with surviving children Nicholas and Ernest appearing quite elderly in their own right as portrayed by C. Aubrey Smith and Halliwell Hobbes.
Gran’s youngest, Philip Whiteoaks, was deceased, but with the elderly uncles each childless the younger Whiteoaks all belonged to the late Philip. By his first wife came Renny, now head of the estate, played by Ian Hunter, with Broadway's Peggy Wood as Renny’s older sister, Meg. Also found at the Whiteoaks estate were the four children born of Philip’s second marriage, by order of their age: David Manners as Eden, Theodore Newton as Piers, George Offerman, Jr. As Finch and Clifford Severn as Wakefield.
The movie opens with Gran's dinner plate passed around the Whiteoaks dinner table during which time we are aided in keeping the entire clan straight through an inventive series of credits naming each actor and character they play. Each of them dishes out some grub for Gran, says a few words and passes the plate on to their right as it eventually makes its way back around to Gran.
All those above except Eden (Manners) are present. He bursts in during dinner to announce that his book of poems has been accepted for publication. The farming family doesn’t seem to care much for Eden’s poetic pursuits, all except old Uncle Ernest (Hobbes), who fosters literary ambitions himself. Family head Renny (Hunter) is not agreeable to Eden’s idea of running off to New York to meet with his publisher and soak up the writer’s life.
But Eden has his way, as we suspect he often does, and is soon exchanging pleasantries with publisher's assistant Alayne Archer (Kay Johnson) who had been personally responsible for saving his work from the slush pile. Before we can get ourselves too settled in to the New York surroundings Eden and Alayne fall in love and return to Jalna as husband and wife.
As the Whiteoaks happily celebrate the arrival of the new bride to Jalna their insulated world is shattered by the arrival of a second bride. Eden’s younger brother Piers (Newton) has married neighbor girl Pheasant (Molly Lamont) causing upset to the entire family, but especially half-sister Meg (Wood).
Meg finds herself an old maid by virtue of a traumatizing break-up with neighbor Maurice Vaughn (Nigel Bruce) many years ago. The split came after Maurice was presented with a basket containing his child born out of wedlock by another woman. That child was Pheasant.
The Whiteoaks tear into Piers and Pheasant, horrifying newcomer Alayne who rises to Pheasant’s defense. Husband Eden is already beginning to show his true colors, finding the entire scene somewhat entertaining and very amusing. Alayne’s scolding is interrupted by the return of Renny (Hunter), who quiets everyone with a scolding, including Eden’s new bride. Still, it is hard not to notice some sparks between the forceful Renny and strong willed Alayne.
Barely settled at Jalna Alayne finds herself in love with her husband’s older half-brother. Renny can’t keep away from her either but they manage to control themselves for Eden’s sake. Eden is quickly exposed as a bit of a scoundrel, shooing his wife away so he can pretend to compose poetry all the while becoming more and more aggressive in his pursuit of Pier’s new wife, Pheasant.
While the peppermint popping Jessie Ralph lords over her every scene and is a total delight as the cranky but still competent 99-year-old Gran, I was most especially impressed by two actors who I rarely have anything nice to say about.
Well, Ian Hunter has grown on me. I used to find him as bland as a hundred other interchangeable actors who sucked up to more memorable leading ladies or, in Hunter’s case, played forgettable fathers. But as Jalna’s male lead, head of the Whiteoaks family, Hunter brings an impressive range of emotion to his role and emerges as the character we root for more than any other.
Hardworking and hard-headed Renny, finds his heart softened by Alayne, though he’s also sympathetic father figure to Wakefield (Severn), the youngest of the orphaned generation of Whiteoaks children. Renny stands no nonsense from his other brothers, especially head in the clouds Eden. He treats his elders with respect, though at the same time they know that despite his youth Renny is true head of the family.
I’m usually very hard on David Manners, but I liked him in Jalna for all the reasons I usually dislike him in everything else.
Often cast as a romantic leading man Manners often comes off to me as whiny and immature, not at all dashing, but a little boy seeming more inconvenienced than challenged by whatever hardships screenwriters toss his way.
Manners is especially frustrating because I believe he had the presence of a star, always heightening my expectations, but with performances that seem to fall short for me.
Finally all those negative traits I always seem to find in Manners' characters fit him as Eden Whiteoaks! Beyond being so hard for me to root for in those earlier roles I also find Manners terrible at delivering his lines, often sounding like someone reading them off a page without any idea of the emotion they’re supposed to suggest. While I still had an issue with that in Jalna his Eden is so petulant and full of himself that I didn’t mind it nearly as much. Despite the character emerging as the Whiteoaks black sheep I found myself, for once, pulling for Manners, hoping his Eden would get his act together and find a happy reward. But I won’t spoil that for you.
When Jalna released in 1935 Mazo de la Roche had just completed her fifth novel in the series, Young Renny. The previous four books had moved forward with the Whiteoaks saga while Young Renny would be the first to dip back in time to tell a story of Jalna previous to the original novel. There would be eleven more books in the series through 1960 with the eventual time span covered ranging one hundred years, 1853-1953.
While each novel is supposed to be able to stand alone, I've listed them below in chronological order by the date each story begins. That fictional date is followed by the original publication date in parenthesis along with what number the book was as de la Roche wrote them. Thus Morning at Jalna, the second novel in the series as it unfolds was actually the final book (#16) in de la Roche's series published in 1960.
- Building of Jalna, 1853 (1944 - #9)
- Morning at Jalna, 1863 (1960 #16)
- Mary Wakefield, 1894 (1949 - #11)
- Young Renny, 1906 (1935 - #5)
- Whiteoak Heritage, 1918 (1940 - #7)
- Whiteoak Brothers, 1923 (1953 - #13)
- Jalna, 1924 (1927 - #1)
- Whiteoaks of Jalna, 1926 (1929 - #2)
- Finch's Fortune, 1929 (1932 - #3)
- The Master of Jalna, 1931 (1933 - #4)
- Whiteoak Harvest, 1934 (1936 - #6)
- Wakefield's Course, 1939 (1941 - #8)
- Return to Jalna, 1943 (1946 - #10)
- Renny's Daughter, 1948 (1951 - #12)
- Variable Winds at Jalna, 1948 (1954 - #14)
- Centenary at Jalna, 1953 (1958 - #15)
My own Jalna experience is largely limited to the enjoyable 1935 movie and now the first fifty plus pages of the original book in the series, Jalna. From what I can tell so far this story is mostly told through the eyes of the youngest Whiteoak, Wakefield, who is really only afforded one such scene in the movie as he excitedly moves from bedroom to bedroom greeting his elders on the morning of Alayne’s arrival.
I picked up six books from the series in one fell swoop off of eBay. As always when dealing with a collection the collector at heart emerged in me and I required matching copies. I had the foresight to imagine that the earliest hardcover editions of the books would probably price me out of the market, especially had I desired dust jackets, and so I went the mass market paperback route. Now I’ve just got to find the other ten titles in Fawcett editions!
I am happy that my entrance to Mazo de la Roche’s world came through the 1935 movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was miffed by the low IMDb rating until I came to discover the story behind the source material. I may never have heard of Jalna before Jessie Ralph’s biography brought it to my attention, but I bet most of those few folks rating it over there had!
After I found the books and learned a little more about the series it immediately called the Forsyte Saga to mind. Especially since I had spent a good portion of 2012 familiarizing myself with that famed ‘60s BBC miniseries. In the case of Jalna I wondered at there being 16 books yet only one movie. Didn’t seem to speak well of the books.
Then I found that a television series was attempted and digging back through period articles it turns out that the 1972 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series was inspired by the success of the Forsytes and the BBC’s succeeding forays into historical drama. Reading about the series, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, also made it easier to accept my own earlier ignorance of both stories and author.
“At a time when her popularity is beginning to wane, de la Roche is being re-introduced to her justifiable role as one of Canada’s greatest novelists. Ignored by critics and adored by an avid public …”
While the CBC series was picked up by Thames TV for broadcast in Great Britain it appears that the true goal of The Whiteoaks of Jalna was American network money that never came. The Thames sale was contingent upon there being 26 episodes of The Whiteoaks of Jalna, but the series’ cancellation was announced after the 12th episode with only the 13th and final episode remaining to air. CBC’s director of programming attributed the cancellation to “audience reaction, overseas sales and production difficulties caused by a long strike by the CBC technicians.”The only other filmed English language version of Jalna appears to be a 1951 BBC program starring Nancy Price. Price had played Gran in a Whiteoaks play adapted by de la Roche herself from her second novel in the series, Whiteoaks of Jalna. It ran for two years in London beginning in 1936 before coming to America where Ethel Barrymore took over the role on Broadway in 1938. Presumably the 1951 BBC Whiteoaks starring Price was a filmed version of the play she had starred in fifteen years earlier.
Mazo de la Roche died in 1961, age 82. Her life was largely a mystery with her obituary in the Ottawa Citizen quoting a Toronto writer who had summed up her legacy well in remarking, “the most casual reader in Bucharest knew almost as much about her as her neighbors in Forest Hill.” The Edmonton Journal obit punctuated itself with reference to de la Roche's “reserved and aloof life.”
An attempt to shed some light on the life of de la Roche came just last year as Maya Gallus of Red Queen Productions brought her story to the screen in the documentary The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche (2012). But the mystery largely remains as the very private de la Roche had intended.
While we may never know more about Mazo de la Roche she left behind an entire world in her series of 16 novels (and she did indeed write more than the Jalna series as well).
At the time of the 1972 CBC series Canadian journalist Bill Smiley reflected upon his own fondness for the Jalna stories:
“Our pioneer ancestors were about as much like the Whiteoaks as Pierre Trudeau is like me. And Jalna is about as real in rural 19th-century Canada as Camelot was in the barbaric dark ages. But this is part of the charm. They’re escape novels, in the best sense of the word.”
I’ll be honest. Through 78 minutes of film and just 50-plus pages of reading I don’t find myself transported to Canada or any specific place. I do find myself wrapped up in the Whiteoaks family with a yearning to learn more about how its parts work and a curiosity to meet Whiteoaks of both earlier and later generations than those I now know.
The movie worked for me. It sold Mazo de la Roche books. Even if in my case they were used books.
Not having read enough to give any meaningful perspective as a de la Roche reader I would still suggest that you take my route if at all possible and find the 1935 RKO movie first. If the world that Mazo de la Roche created is as large as what I now suspect then I would imagine this enjoyable little movie is going to pale in comparison for anyone coming to it after the books.
Jalna has never had a video release, at least here in the United States. I viewed it on Turner Classic Movies which is also where all of my screen captures came from. Check the top of TCM's Jalna page for next scheduled air date (none as I write this).
- ”Creator of the ‘Jalna’ Series.” Ottawa Citizen 13 Jul 1961: 6. Google News. Web. 14 Jan 2013.
- ”’Jalna’ Gets the Axe.” Winnipeg Free Press 25 May 1972: 19. NewspaperArchive. Web. 15 Jan 2013.
- Kapica, Jack. Montreal Gazette 22 Jan 1972: 43. Google News. Web. 14 Jan 2013.
- Smiley, Bill. “Memories of the Jalna Book.” Mercury-Advance 26 Jan 1972: A2. Google News. Web. 14 Jan 2013.
- ”Week’s Summary Of World News.” Edmonton Journal 15 Jul 1961: 21. Google News. Web. 14 Jan 2013.